Can I get a witness?

Eyewitness testimony is a serious problem when it comes to the American criminal courts. The Innocence Project has exonerated almost 300 people who have been wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes. The organization has stated that “eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide.” The Innocence Project described misidentification as playing a role “in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”

So what does that say about cases that rely entirely on eyewitness testimony?

Now ask yourself if you would be comfortable convicting a person if a case is based entirely on the eyewitness testimony of confirmed gang members. If the answer to that question is “no”, I have a story you must read.

Martin Anthony Villalon Jr., known to his friends and family as Anthony, is 19 years old. He resides in the Wabash Correctional Facility in Indiana – a prison well known for housing some incredibly violent and aggressive offenders. He was 15 when he was arrested in connection with the shooting of another teenager named John Shoulders. Though the DNA recovered from the crime scene did not match Anthony or the other person accused of the offense, he was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years. The prosecution’s case was based on eyewitness testimony.

The other individual charged with committing the crime, Prevaun McDaniel, was acquitted in adult court. The case against both boys was equally as weak, but McDaniel’s defense attorney fought hard in the court room for his client. He meticulously debunked the prosecution’s cases, piece by piece. He discredited alleged witnesses who were admitted gang members and likely had nefarious motives for lying to police about the shooting. McDaniel’s attorney systematically answered every question the jury could possibly have about his client and as a result of this painstaking approach, McDaniel is free.

Anthony was not nearly as fortunate. His attorney showed up to the trial, but he did not put on a defense that came close to rivaling that of McDaniel’s. In fact, a number of people waited in the halls of the courthouse to testify on Anthony’s behalf – including his grandmother, Cheryle. None of the people who could verify Anthony’s alibi, or speak to his character, were called to testify. Additionally, because these people anticipated they would testify, they were not allowed into the court room to observe the testimony of others.

Cheryle was present at the trial of Prevaun McDaniel, however. She credits the avoidance of a wrongful conviction in McDaniel’s case to his attorney. “His lawyer fought like it was his kid on trial,” she explained to me. “He pounced on every lie, every conflicting testimony, every witness…every flaw was discussed. Every time the prosecutor came up with something the lawyer jumped on it and tore it apart.” She went on to explain that even though his attorney was working for free, “he fought like he was being paid very well.”

The eyewitness testimony did not include anyone who observed the actual shooting. Instead, it consisted of a colorful array of characters. First there was Sergio “Outlaw” Rosa. Rosa admitted in court he was a gang member – belonging to the Latin Kings. He alleged that the day after Shoulders was shot, Anthony and Prevaun told him they committed the murder. He said they did it because Shoulders was the member of the Vice Lord street gang.

Another eyewitness was less certain about Anthony’s involvement in the murder. At Anthony’s trial, the witness said he did not know the teen and admitted that in his original eyewitness description he had failed to identify Anthony as Hispanic. He also confirmed he had been unable to identify Anthony when the police showed him photographs.

The third witness, Becky Clemens, took the stand and claimed Anthony stopped by her house on the day of the murder, looking for Shoulders. She said he was looking for him because he was “going to get his ass beat on the G” and because Shoulders was apparently “claiming Vice Lord.” Her testimony lacked credibility because upon further examination it was determined she had her own gang affiliations. In an appeal on behalf of Anthony, an attorney wrote, “Clemens testified that she had previously had boys living in her house who were members of the Spanish Gangster Disciples. She was shown a copy of her MySpace page, and admitted to its accuracy.”

The same defense attorney described Clemens as a “gangster mother at heart”.

The eyewitness accounts were conflicting and at times witnesses testified to seeing or hearing things that were factually incorrect. People who could have provided information countering these claims were not called to testify at Anthony’s trial.

There were other problems as well. Allegations of jury misconduct were revealed after the conviction. It was alleged that one juror was observed hugging a family member of the victim during the course of the trial.

Another problem with the jury in Anthony’s trial pertained to one of its members. “We had a big problem with one juror,” Cheryle recalled. “He was someone who knew some of our family members. We begged our lawyer not to have him sit on the jury. The judge gave the lawyer a chance to do something when she asked him if there was a problem. He said, ‘we already picked him’. Later it was discovered he had ties to the prosecutor and he gave another juror a ride home on several occasions, admitting in court that they discussed the case outside the jury room”.

Many people have maintained that neither Anthony nor Prevaun were members of a gang. The prosecution’s theory was based on this premise, despite the unsettling lack of reliable or credible evidence supporting it. Neither of the boys have ever confessed either. Cheryle explained this was despite the police having attempted to coerce a confession from Prevaun.

She noted, “Prevaun was tortured in the adult jail and every time he was beaten or hurt, the prosecutor would tell him if he said Anthony did this crime he could go home. Prevaun never did say it was Anthony. He said he didn’t know Anthony personally. He stood up to the system. Not many adults could have done that.”

Anthony is particularly vulnerable in the prison setting. He has an I.Q. of 71 points and he is described by his grandmother as being the kind of person who wants to please those around him. She does not believe he had any part in the murder of John Shoulders. She does not believe he is even capable of such a crime. “If I believed for one second he killed John I would do my best to help him live with his punishment, but I would not fight to free him,” she told me.

Cheryle worries about her grandson’s time in prison immensely. “He can be very naive. He is still like a 15 year old. He listens to these grown men and is starting to trust in what they say.” Her biggest fear is that in prison “he will change into someone else”. She despairs at the thought of losing the kind and caring boy she has always known. “We have so many great memories with Anthony. Our family loves to spend time together.”

When asked about her fondest memory she described a vacation the family took to Tennessee a year before Anthony was arrested. “There were seven of us, including my best friend. We rented a cabin for 6 days over the New Year’s holiday. Anthony and his friend carried the entire luggage, food, and other supplies up the longest flight of stairs I had ever seen. They never once complained”. She also described all of the time spent laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

Anthony has a strong network of support. Members of the family visit him as often as possible. Sometimes Anthony has to remove a person from his approved list of visitors just to accommodate all of the people who want to see him. Cheryle believes that close connections with family are critical for Anthony. She is fighting to maintain his emotional well-being, while also balancing an expensive legal battle in the hopes of clearing her son’s name.

In 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals denied Anthony’s request to have his conviction overturned. His appeal called into question the constitutionality of the waiver into adult court. It also challenged his sentence of 60 years as “excessive”.

Anthony’s hope rests with the United States Supreme Court. The Court will make a decision about whether or not to hear Anthony’s case on September 24th of this year His motion is asking the court to consider if he should have had a right to a jury trial within the juvenile system. At the present time a Magistrate is responsible for making the decision as to whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. Cheryle, and many others who signed a petition she posted online, believe that a jury should be involved in making such a serious determination.

To date, Cheryle’s petition has 484 signatures. The petition is located on Change.org, which you may access by clicking here. If the Supreme Court rules in Anthony’s favor it will set a precedent that would effect other countless other juvenile cases. Please help to make this petition a success by signing it and sharing it with others.

Cheryle wants the people reading this to know that her grandson “is innocent”. She went on to add, “If my grandson loses all his appeals he will be spending 60 years in prison. The real murderer will still be out there living his life. When Anthony comes home, I will be dead”. Most of Anthony’s other family members will be deceased as well.

“I want people to know all children are worth saving. No human being deserves to be locked in a cage for their entire life, even if they are guilty.” She then pointed to the punitive aspect of the adult system when it comes to punishing juveniles for crimes. “These children have no purpose in prison. They are wasting away. Anthony has had no schooling. He has only an eighth grade education”. She wonders how the people who support this kind of system can ever expect people who spend the majority of their lives in the prison environment – quite literally – to one day emerge from the prison setting and become a functional member of society.

“Our justice system has no mercy in their hearts,” Cheryle said finally. “It is so hard for me to grasp an understanding of what kind of society does this to children. Some children have committed terrible crimes, but does that give us the right to do terrible things to them?”

It’s a valid question. Does it?

And what about those who are wrongfully convicted? What about them?

The trouble with interrogating minors

Scenes from Michael Crowe's interrogation

Scenes from Michael Crowe’s interrogation

We know from organizations like the Innocence Project that coerced or false confessions are a major contributor to wrongful convictions. The Project’s site states the following: “In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.”

But why would someone who is innocent of a crime confess to doing it? This is the question that everyone considers when they first learn that a person has made an incriminating statement and then later claims it was coerced.

What kind of person admits to committing a crime they did not do?

It is a good question that requires analysis of the psychology behind police interrogations and the systematic breakdown of a person’s resolve. The trouble is that people who are innocent are just as susceptible to the incredible strain placed on a person during the process as those that are guilty of having committed a crime. Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable as evidenced by the case of Michael Crowe.

In 1998, 12  year old Stephanie Crowe was found stabbed to death in her bedroom. Police quickly focused their investigation on Stephanie’s 14 year old brother, Michael. His interrogation lasted for 27 hours, conducted over the course of three days. Two of Michael’s friends also made incriminating statements to police – one of which was a confession. Michael confessed to having murdered his sister as well, though DNA evidence later showed the crime was committed by a transient named Richard Tuite.

Police used an interrogation technique known as the Reid Technique in Michael’s case. This is a popular method of interrogating individuals police feel may be involved in a crime. The approach consists of two separate stages and is discussed in a brief filed on behalf of Damien Echols, prior to his accepting an Alford Plea that allowed him to walk off death row in Arkansas. Echols, along with two other teenagers at the time, were convicted of murdering three children in West Memphis, Arkansas. Though confessions given by one of the teenagers, Jessie Misskelley, were never admitted into evidence during the joint trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, they were credited with influencing the jury because the foreman knew about the confession and purportedly told the other jurors about it.

Misskelley’s statements to police were problematic because initially they did not match the facts of the case. In his first incriminating statement to police he indicated the murders happened in the morning, which was impossible since all three children attended school that day and various sightings of the boys were reported to police up until approximately 7 p.m. the evening they disappeared. Examination of the statement provides clear examples of the police influencing changes made by Misskelley, ranging from the time the crime was allegedly committed to other critical elements.

The first stage of the Reid Technique contains three steps. First, the officers separate the suspect from family and friends. Typically the interrogation is done in a small, uncomfortable space that increases feelings of pressure and vulnerability. Second, the person or people conducting the interrogation accuse the suspect of being untruthful. It is not unusual for police using this approach to refuse to hear what the suspect is saying and to continually express the belief the suspect is guilty of the crime. Third, the police often tell the suspect they have physical or other types of evidence implicating them in the crime. Sometimes an officer will refrain from outright lying and will ask questions like, “If I told you that we found your fingerprints on the weapon used, what would your explanation be for that?”

The second stage kicks the process up several notches. First, after the suspect has been interrogated at length and led to believe that the police will not hear of their innocence, they are told there might be a way out of the situation. The suspect is essentially advised of any benefits of confessing to the crime. For example, a confession will put an end to the interrogation. An officer might even offer sympathy, saying something like this: “I can understand if you just reached the end of your rope and you lost your temper. Sometimes accidents happen.”

This coincides with the second crucial step, which is to minimize the involvement of the suspect.

“You didn’t mean to do it.”

“We know this is not the kind of person you are.”

“You only witnessed someone else committing the crime.”

“You didn’t want to participate.”

The final step consists of explaining that a confession is the only way out and is in their best interest. Keep in mind that these two stages go on for hours. The suspect’s resolve is broken down in carefully calculated steps. It is all dependent on the interrogator’s ability to convince the suspect that relief will only come from offering a confession.

Children and teenagers are especially susceptible to the above-described conditions. Many youth, when in the presence of authority, feel a responsibility to cooperate and assist with the investigation. Few realize they have the right to do otherwise, even when that is expressed to them during the reading of their Miranda rights. Children and teenagers are taught to not only act respectfully in the presence of law enforcement, but to trust them as well.

The issue of interrogating minors has surfaced once again because of the Cristian Fernandez case. Cristian was 12 years old when he was charged in the death of his younger brother. The child’s defense is asking the judge to suppress two statements he made to police on the grounds he did not understand his rights when he gave them, and he was not cognizant of the consequences of giving such statements.

He is charged with felony murder (aggravated child abuse and murder), which despite his young age could carry a life without parole sentence if the judge deems it appropriate. Previously, when State Attorney Angela Corey sought the indictment for this charge, it was the only sentence Cristian could receive if convicted per Florida’s mandatory minimum requirements. Unless he accepted a plea deal.

Cristian originally said his brother fell off a bunk bed. He later claimed he pushed his brother into a bookshelf. Upon injuring his brother, the adolescent told his mother about his brother’s injuries and the mother waited – for unknown reasons – approximately eight hours to seek help for her unconscious and bleeding son. That decision may have cost her youngest child his life, but little has been made public about the reasoning behind waiting. News reports have indicated she spent much of this time on the Internet, researching head injuries and engaging in other activities.

Cristian is also charged with sexual battery because of a statement his younger brother – 4 or 5 at the time of the alleged incident – made to another person. Only a partial transcript of the interrogation regarding this charge is available; however, it causes confusion as to what the young child was referring to when he made the statement. The transcript is troubling, and not for the reasons Angela Corey and the other prosecutors she now has working on his case would have you believe.

Then there is the fact Cristian has been sexually and physically abused throughout his life. His mother gave birth to him when she was the same age he was when charged with murder. His father has had little to nothing to do with him. Prior to the murder, Cristian’s stepfather took his own life by shooting himself in the head. Cristian was not present when this happened, but his other siblings were. The youngest was covered in blood and trembling when police responded to the incident. The stepfather is believed to have committed suicide to avoid prosecution in connection with badly beating Cristian.

In a recent turn of events, the psychologist who was originally contracted by State Attorney Corey became a witness for the defense. This was in light of his determination that Cristian did not sufficiently understand what it meant to waive his rights. The same psychologist had previously provided Angela Corey with a detailed assessment of Cristian, combined with the finding that despite his troubling past, the accused was amenable to treatment and would respond well to intensive inpatient therapy.

Then there is the matter of lost evidence. On June 28th, the prosecution called various people to the stand to testify regarding the explanation of rights to Cristian and his understanding of those rights before he made statements to police. The prosecution asked to call his previous public defenders to the stand to question them about their visits with the child. The attorneys were protected by client-attorney privilege, but the judge did allow them to provide information about the number of times they visited their client.

Why? Because the Department of Juvenile Justice apparently lost or misplaced that information.

Detective Soehling questioned Cristian and testified that she made “technical” mistakes in her reports. She even admitted to destroying her reports, giving no reason for having done it. The detective had not received formal training with regard to questioning juveniles and though she claimed he understood his rights, she offered no evidence or testimony that supported she had the training and experience to recognize when a child understands their legal rights. She did not individually expound on any of the rights, or ask Cristian to paraphrase them in a way that would indicate understanding.

Cristian was not given guidance or advice from any adult outside of law enforcement. He was on his own when he was questioned. The state’s original psychologist is claiming he did not understand his rights. The case already reflected badly on Angela Corey when she became angry at those who questioned her approach. She refuses to consider that 189,000 people have signed my petition asking her to reverse her decision to try him as an adult. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that she would pursue, with gusto, the prosecution of George Zimmerman – the Florida man accused of committing second degree murder against a 17 year old teenager named Trayvon Martin. What kind of picture does this newest information paint of Corey’s prosecution of am adolescent?

But that is what Angela Corey does. She throws the book at people. While this might be considered a positive attribute in some cases, it becomes a liability in others when she refuses to acknowledge the clear differences between juveniles and adults. It becomes an issue when she refuses to consider potentially mitigating factors in each individual case.

On the second day of the hearing regarding the suppression of statements, the defense called child psychiatrist David Fassler to the stand. Dr. Fassler testified that Cristian did not understand his rights and provided information about the advanced scientific understanding of human brain development in adolescents. He has lectured on these types of matters at Yale, Harvard, and before Congress.

If Judge Cooper agrees to suppress the statements made by Cristian Fernandez, it will significantly weaken the prosecution’s cases against the defendant. It remains to be seen if she will take this action. Cristian’s case is just one more that emphasizes the dangers and problems associated with interrogating minor children. This is an area of the American legal system that requires significant reform, especially if courts continue to try and sentence children as adults.

The investigation into the death of Eric Perez

Eric Perez

Eric Perez

Eric Perez was just days into his eighteenth year when his life ended suddenly. The circumstances surrounding his death are both tragic and disturbing. Eric died within the care of the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center where he was incarcerated because he had been caught with a small amount of marijuana while riding a bike with a broken light.

The offense was relatively minor, but the consequences weren’t.

The Incident

In March 0f 2012, State Attorney Michael McAuliffe released the grand jury presentment pertaining to Eric’s death. The document contains information about the last hours of the young man’s life based on interviews, reports, and surveillance video. The picture painted by State Attorney McAuliffe, to the grand jury, is not a pleasant one.

On the evening of July 9th of 2011, Eric accompanied the other male juveniles from module B-2 to the cafeteria to eat some snacks. It was almost 8 p.m. Before leaving the cafeteria, the three officers that brought the boys began conducting searches to ensure that no one took any of the snacks with them upon leaving.

The officers and the youths were observed on video joking and laughing during the process. The report states, “The DJJ officers also appeared to be engaging in horseplay with the youths while the searches took place.”

At some point, Eric was accused of trying to take a snack back to where he was housed. Though the report describes the officers and the youths as laughing during the search, it also points out that during the search Eric was “roughly tossed in the air, striking the wall and/or floor with his head and/or shoulder as he came back down.”

Eric left the cafeteria appearing unsteady on his feet. Within a fairly short amount of time the report stated that Eric once again appeared normal. He was sent to bed at about 9:30 p.m.

At about 1:30 a.m. Eric’s cell mates called an officer into the are because Eric was screaming. His cries became louder as he yelled for someone to “get it off me, get it off me.” The officer who responded reported that Eric was hallucinating and subsequently called the supervisor.

By the time the supervisor arrived, Eric was staggering around inside his cell. The officers asked Eric to leave the cell, which he did by crawling since he did not appear to be able to stand. Eric laid down on the floor and rolled from side to side. He screamed that his head hurt.

While Eric lay on the floor, the officers began to review his medical chart. The report states that Eric “then rose to his feet, using the wall for balance, before he stumbled forward, fell, and appeared to strike his head on the corner of the table.”

The officers observed all of this take place, but no one did anything to help the teen. Instead, Eric was given a mattress pad to lie down on in the common area of the facility. Officers helped him onto the pad and then covered him with sheet. Eric appeared to fall asleep on the pad.

At about 2:22 a.m., Eric awoke. He rolled off his mattress and then vomited on the floor. He also lost control of his bowels and was reported as defecating in his clothing. and underwear. Officers tried to help Eric to his feet but he could not stand.

Despite the alarming turn of events, no attempt was made to contact 911 or to seek medical assistance for the teen. It was not until 2:39 a.m. that the supervisor made the first call to the superintendent of the facility. He reported that Eric was vomiting. The supervisor was advised to contact the nurse. He called the nurse twice between 2:39 a.m. and 3:07 a.m. The calls went unanswered and the report specified that the nurse was no on call.

The supervisor again contacted the superintendent at 3:08 a.m., informing him that he was unable to get in touch with the nurse but that everything with Eric appeared to be okay because he was sleeping.

The grand jury was presented with testimony that the supervisor was overheard saying “he did not want to call 911 because he thought the youth was faking and he did not want to fill out extra paperwork.”

The bigger problem, in the eyes of the officers, appeared to be the smell that accumulated as a result of Eric having lost control of his bowels. The officers made attempts to clean around Eric. Video surveillance showed the officers mopping the area, but failing to check on Eric.

At about 5:15 a.m. one of the officers attempted to help Eric stand so he could take a shower. The teen was unable to stand up and so the officers dragged him by the mattress pad into what is known as a medical confinement cell. Pillows were placed around the teen and he was covered with sheets. Eric could be heard snoring.

No further attempts were made to contact a nurse or the superintendent. 911 had still not been contacted.

The last visible movement from Eric occurred at 7 a.m. His arms, which had been placed at his sides, moved slightly. An examination of the video by the medical examiner revealed that this movement was “decerebrate posturing”, indicating that this was the time when Eric died.

The female officer continued to report checking on Eric every ten minutes; however, evidence was presented to the grand jury that the officer was checking on a youth who had already been deceased for about an hour.

At 7:51 a.m. another officer became concerned because he did not hear Eric snoring anymore. He checked for a pulse and noted that the teen was “cold to the touch.”

At 7:57 a.m. a call was finally made to 911. Eric was pronounced dead shortly upon their arrival at 8:09 a.m.

The Policies

The report describing the presentment to the grand jury indicated that the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center had policies and procedures pertaining to contacting 911. Employees are directed to contact 911 if a “potentially life threatening medical emergency arises.” If a youth experiences medical difficulties that are of an unknown severity level the officers are to send the individual to the clinic or call a nurse to conduct a further assessment.

The facility had signs posted prominently throughout stating that staff members maintained the right to call 911 if they believed a situation was potentially life-threatening. However, this did not occur in Eric’s situation.

All incidents are also to be referred to the Central Communications Center (CCC). A review of the detention facilities practices showed that between July 1st of 2011 and July 10th of 2011, 107 reports and/or calls were made to emergency services from the facility. Despite the policy requiring the facility to report these incidents to the CCC, only eight were ultimately reported to the CCC.

Prior to Eric’s death, officers involved in the incident had received training – some within weeks of the event – regarding the policies and procedures regarding handling a youth in custody who appeared sick or injured. Officers are taught during that training that they can contact 911 at their own discretion without receiving approval from a supervisor.

But in Eric’s case, no one did.

Grand Jury Findings

The grand jury found that the staff at the detention center were insufficiently trained when it came to identifying early warning signs of a potentially life threatening situation. They further indicated that the facility needed to provide  an around-the-clock trained medical professional for the purpose of evaluating youth who might be experiencing a life-threatening emergency.

The grand jury also found that officers were engaging in “inappropriate relationships with their youth wards”. This was made in reference to video surveillance that showed “several youths being treated in a rough manner by the DJJ officers.”

The report states:

At one point, many of the youths are seen pointing at Mr. Perez as if he had the prohibited snack in his possession. Two DJJ officers are then seen lifting Mr. Perez, one by Mr. Perez’s head, and one by his feet. Mr. Perez is turned upside down and dropped onto the floor or nearby wall hitting his head and/or should area. Throughout the interaction in the cafeteria, the youths laugh and joke with the DJJ officers and appear to treat the entire interaction like a game. The DJJ officers do nothing to discourage this behavior.

The DJJ has and had policies prohibiting that type of interaction, but they were not followed.

In addition to the above, the grand jury also cited inappropriate reactions to the medical needs of residents on the part of officers. They pointed to the lack of care provided when Eric experienced hallucinations, head pain, and other signs of clear distress.

The officers’ response to Mr. Perez’s hallucinations, instability and cries of pain were to simply observe him as he lay on the floor vomiting and defecating in his underwear. More effort was spent cleaning the floor around the youth than attending to his welfare.

The Autopsy

An autopsy revealed that Eric died from a cerebral hemorrhage. The autopsy did not find that the teen had external trauma that would have caused the bleeding, despite the video showing he injured his head. The medical examiner’s office was unable to determine if Eric’s death could have been prevented.

Specialists, including one in neuropathology, reviewed the video and the medical evidence in an attempt to determine if the hemorrhage was caused by the injury or if medical intervention could have prevented the youth’s death. They were unable to make this determination.

Despite the efforts of four forensic pathologists and one practicing neuropathologist, there is not sufficient evidence establishing the specific cause of the cerebral hemorrhage that resulted in Mr. Perez’s death or whether prompt medical attention could/would have saved his life. Thus, no criminal charges are appropriate. As a result, the manner of death is undetermined.

The grand jury indicated that criminal charges could not be brought against anyone in reference to child neglect because they did not feel that Eric met the criteria of “child” according to the statutes.

Recommendations

The grand jury report contained several recommendations. The first was that the correctional officers at the facility receive extensive training.

The second was that the policies and procedures be modified to contain the requirement that officers must seek an evaluation by a medical professional for youths complaining of a medical condition.

The third recommendation was that the facility needed to have a medical professional on site at all times for the purpose of performing such a medical evaluation. “The officers should be required to call 911 for outside medical assistance.”

Finally, the report recommended that the legislature should “enact a statute addressing the criminal neglect of anyone in the care of custody of the DJJ.”

Aftermath

In mid July two officers working for the facility were fired after having been placed on administrative leave following Eric’s death. Though the facility had not confirmed the reason for their termination, the media drew a correlation between Eric’s death and the dismissing of the officers. The same report indicated that Eric was scheduled for release from the facility within a week.

By the beginning of August, the media had reported that the state was refusing to pay for Eric’s funeral expenses, despite everything that occurred while he was in the custody of the DJJ. One article stated:

Juvenile justice administrators had offered to pay up to $5,000 in funeral costs to bury 18-year-old Eric Perez, who died at the West Palm Beach detention center on July 10. But after the state cut a check to the Tillman Funeral Home, Florida’s chief financial officer ordered that the check be destroyed, records show.

The article also indicated that this would not have the first time a youth’s funeral was covered by the state. The same article stated that five corrections officers were suspended because of the incident, along with Anthony C. Flowers, the facility’s superintendent.

In terms of the recommended changes, only time will tell if they are implemented.

Eric’s death is unsettling for many reasons. The lack of response to the rapid onset of his symptoms is perhaps the most troubling, although I was really disgusted to read that the state issued a check to assist in paying for the funeral, only to put a stop on it.

Eric has not been the only youth in Florida to die within the custody of a detention facility. Omar Paisley died in a Miami-Dade Detention Center in 2003, after spending three days in his cell writhing in pain due to an appendicitis attack.

Speaking Out

If you are equally disturbed by what you have read there are actions you can take toward ensuring the recommendations provided in the grand jury report are put into effect. The first thing you can do is contact the Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Wansley Walters, and urge her to monitor implementation of the recommendations. Her contact information is available here.

You can also share Eric’s story and ask others to take action as well. Please help to prevent the death of another youth in Florida’s detention facilities. Sending an email costs nothing and it could have a significantly positive impact if our voices are heard and acknowledged.

Another action you can take is to contact legislators within Florida to modify statutes relating to child neglect or abuse to ask that all youth detained within the state’s facilities be included in the description of children who qualify for protection under the law. You may find contact information for Florida House Representatives here.